Passengers, which isn’t to be confused with Rodrigo Garcia’s God-awful 2008 film of the same name, is a 3D, effects-laden science fiction drama that, like an underachieving high school student, doesn’t live up to the potential it so clearly had. It gets off to a decent start as an examination of our basic humanity and the ways in which it can be a hindrance rather than an asset, but as it moves ahead, it becomes less and less plausible and more and more conventional. By the end, all compelling ideas are abandoned in favor of tacked-on action thrills and sentimental romantic melodrama.
The story is set in an unspecified future year, at which point a massive interstellar vessel is on a 120-year mission to transport 5,000 passengers and over 200 crew members away from an overpopulated Earth towards an undeveloped but apparently life-compatible planet. For reasons only hinted at in the beginning, one of the passengers is taken out of hypersleep only thirty years into the voyage. This would be engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), who spends the next year-and-a-half of his life simultaneously taking advantage of the ship’s luxurious accommodations and sinking into severe depression, his isolation getting the better of him. For a time, his only companion is the ship’s android bartender (Michael Sheen), a character I strongly suspect was modeled after Lloyd from The Shining.
But then Preston becomes aware of a still-sleeping passenger, a journalist named Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), who, according to her recorded interviews and published writings, is making this journey strictly out of intellectual curiosity and hopes to parlay her experiences into the writing of a book. Out of sheer loneliness, Preston uses his mechanical skills to prematurely take her out of hypersleep – but not before grappling with the morality of such an act. We in the audience should immediately see both sides of the issue; though Preston obviously made his decision for very selfish reasons and is wrongly condemning an innocent person to live out the rest of her days on an empty spaceship, human beings are naturally social, and of course Preston would want to share his life with a flesh and blood companion.
This is the part of the film that held my interest and wished had carried all throughout. It’s a fascinating psychological and sociological study. Unfortunately, Aurora’s inclusion in the story paves the way for a second half that’s implausible and, more importantly, uninteresting. It should be obvious to even the most casual observer than, by being the only two people awake, Preston and Aurora are going to fall in love, and it’s fairly obvious that, at some point, Aurora is going to find out that her awakening was the result of tampering, not a malfunction. The question is how realistic her reaction is going to be; all I can say is that it falls neatly within narrative expectations.
There’s also the faulty logic behind the financing of the ship itself, the gigantic discrepancy between the cost of a ticket and what the average earthling is able to afford (even with the likely possibility of continuing economic inflation), and the questionable decision to have all the passengers divided into paygrades – something Preston is repeatedly and unexplainably able to circumnavigate whenever he so chooses. And then there’s the point at which ship-wide malfunctions, thought to be impossible on a ship so technologically superior, become more and more common; this eventually leads to an investigation, which in turn leads to a conclusion that becomes unnecessarily action-oriented.
The director is Morten Tyldum, known for great films like the Norwegian crime thriller Headhunters and the Oscar-nominated masterpiece The Imitation Game. With Passengers, he misses the mark. However, it was obvious that he, along with screenwriter Jon Spaihts, himself known for the underrated Prometheus, had the best of intentions; though flawed, the film is founded on an engaging premise, and for a time, it psychological themes are intriguing. Credit also to the art directors and special-effects teams for imbuing the film with spectacular visuals, many of which are surprisingly enhanced by the 3D process. Nevertheless, it’s a shame the filmmakers lost their way at some point. This movie really could have been something great.